How good are charter schools?
Archived article from Feb 16, 2001
By Amy Vames
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Although Bulkley's anecdote was hypothetical, the scenario is being played out more frequently as the large number of schools that were chartered in the mid-1990s now face the renewal process. One measure of a charter school's success is standardized test scores, but that measure is highly controversial, even in noncharter schools, Bulkley says.
"If objective measures such as standardized test scores were perfect, authorizers might feel justified in closing a school, but the measures are not perfect," Bulkley maintains. In the end, she adds, "Those in authority have little direct incentive to close charter schools, because they are very popular, and families have a very emotional and personal attachment to them. There's the sense that if you close a charter school, you're shutting down a community."
Bulkley hopes that, despite the admonition of the congressman who thinks her research is "irrelevant," her scholarship can at least enlighten the debate. "I don't think we'll ever have research driving the policy on charter schools, but we can use research to inform the discussion," she says.
Bulkley's research will be included in a report she is completing for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group of universities working to improve elementary and secondary education through research on policy, finance, school reform and school governance. The report is scheduled to be issued in the late spring of 2001.
Bulkley is also studying the involvement of for-profit education management organizations, or EMOs, in charter school operations. "There's been little research on these companies," she notes. "Some EMOs handle only the business side of running charter schools; others are more comprehensive, handling such tasks as hiring the teachers and developing the curriculum." Her research will focus on EMOs that provide "comprehensive management."
She is also putting together a conference, to be held in the fall of 2001, on teaching and learning in charter schools. The conference will look at such issues as laws governing charters, accountability and quality.
Bulkley believes that, despite the problems some charter schools are facing, there is real potential for the schools to make a positive contribution to public education. Parents are attracted to them because they tend to be small and community oriented; often there is also a greater sense of security and safety in such schools, Bulkley says. The current emphasis in the education world on school choice is likely to grow,
Bulkley predicts: "In 20 years, choice will be a given."
What to look for in a charter school
In the course of her research, Katrina Bulkley has visited many charter schools, some wonderfully innovative, others appallingly bad, and she has come to some conclusions about what parents who are considering charter schools for their children's education should look for.
"Ask a lot of questions," she stresses. When visiting a prospective school, take along a teacher from another institution so that he or she can evaluate the program from a teacher's perspective.
"Be careful about putting too much trust in evaluations by parents of a particular school," she warns. Those evaluations tend to be positive because a) parents don't want to feel they've chosen a bad school for their children and b) parents who were not satisfied have moved their children to other schools.
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